The weird-west subgenre has been a thing since at least 1932, when Weird Tales published “The Horror from the Mound” by Robert E. Howard. As the name suggests, weird westerns blend elements of the American west and its iconography with the supernatural and/or cosmic dimension of weird fiction. I know less about the lineage of science fiction westerns, specifically, but even a cursory glance through the annals of SF reveal a fairly deep fascination with deserts and the colonial impulse to expand into borderless frontier spaces (insert obligatory anecdote about Star Trek being originally pitched as Wagon Train but in space). And I’ve seen Firefly, which is kind of the contemporary ur-text for SF westerns and, in many ways, the blueprint for Stark Holborn’s 2021 release, Ten Low. Mysterious people with tragic pasts and an inexplicable skill for doling out lots of violence? Check. The fallout from a war where the two sides can generally be categorized as the Fascist Authority and the Scrappy Rebels? Check. A gritty DIY aesthetic? Check. A nomadic group of people universally feared because they do the occasional cannibalism? Also check.
It may sound glib trotting out these comparisons, but the text itself invites these parallel readings, even to the point of including several blurbs that practice the enormously annoying and vapid “this+that” publishing dictum, by which every text from Firefly to Dune to Ennio Morricone to The Mandalorian is held out as a possible touchstone. None of this is Holborn's fault who, for the most part, has written an enjoyable, breakneck-paced novel that offers compelling characters and lots of action. But the weight of influence is heavy here, and Ten Low struggles underneath it.
The story is set on Fractus, a backwater moon with place-names like Redcrop, the Edge, the Unincorporated Zone, and At Least. Our main character is a medic named Ten Low, a curious name which means strange things none of which might even be accurate. All of this information is doled out sparingly. The novel opens snappily, however, with Ten Low roaming around the Barrens looking for people to help, all in an effort to balance what she refers to as “the tally,” her scales-of-justice analogue that suggests guilt born from a dark and tragic past. A spacecraft falls through the sky and crashlands nearby, thrusting Ten Low into the inconvenient but honor-bound responsibility of caring for a small child that survives the crash, named Gabi. Gabi has military tattoos and uses words like “Implacabilis” and “Former Commander of the Western Air Fleet of the Accorded Nations” when introducing herself, so she’s not your average childhood survivor (p. 42). Ten Low, of course, served on the opposite (and losing) side of the war, setting up a nice tension-fueled relationship whereby Ten Low feels obligated to help Gabi—whose injuries seem to be getting worse—while Gabi is entirely miffed about the whole thing and refers to her savior as “traitor” with every opportunity, desperate to get off this rock and return to the comforts of fascist civilization.
Holborn establishes all of this quickly and efficiently. Indeed, one of the novel’s greatest strengths is how deliberate every line feels, the narrative propelled by Holborn’s propulsive prose and eye for poignant moments of character observation from Ten Low. “Part of me wants to be like this ship,” Ten Low thinks to herself, “calm and functional, empty of blood and feeling” (p. 160). Holborn’s narrative voice is always assured and frequently functions in this entangled mode where character and landscape, the interior voice and the external experience, blend together to collapse those subject/object distinctions, or to blur the line between various temporalities that Ten Low dwells within or anticipates. So while I wasn’t enthralled with Ten Low’s story or its characters, I always found the reading experience pleasurable and fun, worthy of returning to because I knew that Holborn’s voice would remain engaging.
Once Ten Low and Gabi become ensnared in each other’s lives, however, the story itself becomes an episodic road novel, the two of them bouncing from place to place, encountering new peoples and undergoing multiple changes in motivations. We slowly learn about the characters’ past lives, how everyone isn’t quite what they seem, and the two main characters exchange healthy doses of sibling rivalry antics as they begrudgingly but inevitably become respectful of the other’s existence. You know how it goes.
Underneath all the Firefly trappings and Mad Max: Fury Road vibes, though, Holborn seems invested in pondering questions of fate and free will through her introduction of a distinctively supernatural/metaphysical element in the form of the Ifs. When we first meet Ten Low, she’s haunted by some kind of spectral presence to which she refers only as them. It’s not immediately clear if we’re supposed to read this as a psychological response, as something purely in the realm of metaphor, or as actual entities with physical properties. Certainly the people of Factus hold reverential fear of these Ifs, creatures we’re told “are attracted to chaos and influence the world to feed themselves. When they are present, reality changes course” (p. 54). The question of whether they are real or not feels in this context less interesting.
The Ifs emerge as one of the stronger elements in Ten Low, not only because they allow Holborn to craft compelling scenes of indecision and fractured realities but also because they gesture towards broader philosophical ramifications of choice and whether or not such a thing exists. The Ifs manifest in Ten Low’s life when she is unsure, or when multiple opportunities become available; they thrive on chance, on the possibility of a multiverse of outcomes. Holborn uses this narrative device to full advantage, rendering scenes of slowed-down time and disorientation as Ten Low struggles to assert her own will. In an early confrontation, Ten Low feels the presence of them, noting how “reality stretches and squeezes as every possibility presents itself at once, tangled together. I see flames, I see blood flying, I see the crowd surging towards Valdosta, the decisions of two dozen people happening simultaneously” (p. 37). Ten Low and Gabi are burdened by prescriptive pasts that seemingly forced them into their current situations—Gabi’s grooming into an elite child soldier and Ten Low’s inherited trauma from the lives she ended during the war. Holborn wants us to think about how much these pasts ultimately determine both immediate presence and futurity, and the ambiguity of the Ifs offers a means for this discourse to break through an otherwise rote science fiction action story.
As we learn more about these metaphysical beings which are “made of nothing and everything: pure potential,” however, they become rationalized and located within vague gestures toward parallel realities and The Multiverse. You know that scene in Interstellar where Christopher Nolan gives us his visual interpretation of string theory as the characters seemingly communicate with each other across time and space? It’s all very cool and thought provoking, sure, both in Nolan’s work and here in Holborn’s, but the explanation ultimately robs both texts of the initial conundrum they at first so productively posed. In Ten Low’s case, I’m less compelled by the discourses of free will and determined outcomes if the answer is some variation of “well, you see, there are an infinite number of realities and an infinite number of outcomes, so ultimately the question doesn’t matter?”
Admittedly this is all my being nitpicky and projecting my own preferences onto Holborn’s narrative, which is much more engaged with questions related to alternative models of being. By the novel’s close, what the Ifs represent to Ten Low is a practice of difference and redistributed energies, be they literal or figurative—the possibility and potential future of coexistence. “It’s deep night,” Ten Low thinks, “and the wind is in full voice, singing of the darkness between the stars, of the invisible threads that bind worlds – that bind us all – together” (p. 330). Life, then, is no longer a thing to be feared but rather embraced, with all of its contradictions and entanglement. It’s just that this conclusion seems less interesting to me than other directions the novel may have taken.
Ten Low’s front cover boasts a blurb from Adrian Tchaikovsky declaring the book to be “fantastic, punchy SF action,” and Holborn certainly delivers on that front. While I bounced off of the overall package, the writing was consistently strong and interesting, and I’m definitely not immune to “punchy SF action” or the space western aesthetic. As all the blurbs suggest, if you loved Firefly or The Mandalorian or Dune, then you’ll enjoy Ten Low. The novel succeeds in telling the story Holborn wants to tell, even if that tale is safer than I would have liked.